Gainsaying the Gospels

“The Gospels were written in such a temporal and geographical proximity to the events they record that it would have been almost impossible to fabricate events….The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.” (William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, chapter 6)

It is strange (to me) sometimes how apologists become so totally caught up in their pre-conceptions that they cannot see what must be obvious to any more objective observer. The quote above comes from William Lane Craig but you can find the argument on almost any Christian apologetics site: if the disciples had said anything about Jesus which wasn’t true, they couldn’t have got away with it, because they were surrounded by people who could have called them out.  This is just one example of how the fallacy of “boot-strapping” is used in apologetics: 

  1. We know the books of the New Testament are reliable because of the evidence.  
  2. Where does that evidence come from?  
  3. The books of the New Testament. 
  4. Why should we rely on it?  
  5. See 1 above. 

The following  unwarranted assumptions are embedded in WLC’s argument (and in all similar arguments using the gospels, or Acts to prove the NT)

  • That we can know what the disciples did preach a few weeks after the crucifixion. 
  • That Jesus was a sufficiently Big Cheese for all the locals to know him and know what was true or false   about him. 
  • That people would have cared enough about the claims made by this Jewish sect to think it worthwhile refuting them. 

It is, at best, question-begging to claim that the temporal and geographical proximity of the gospels to the events they describe precludes fabrication (even if flat out fabrication were what is alleged by those who dispute their accuracy, which for the most part, it isn’t.)  The Gospels are generally dated between the 70s and 90s, CE.  The concensus view is that they were written in Greek and so it is unlikely that they were written by “locals” from any of the scenes where the events described are supposed to have taken place.  

WLC says that the disciples could never have “proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.”  Why not?  It is implicit in the need to proclaim it that it had not been witnessed by those to whom the proclamation was made.  Which would mean that any proclaiming was based on nothing more than the word of the proclaimers.  If you believe Acts (which presumably WLC does) then the first converts accepted what somebody else told them about something which the converts hadn’t seen and so weren’t in a position to challenge.  On top of that, there is precious little in the accounts of the preaching contained in Acts which indicates that what was preached was specific enough to be easily rebutted.  It all seems to be pretty generalised “He was really special, you screwed up, he came back to life, join us or you’re in big trouble” kind of stuff.  

It is difficult to refute that sort of vague claim.   Without specifics, how do you go about disproving the claim that Jesus worked miracles and was raised from the dead?  Unless you say you were with him 24/7, any attempt to rebut those assertions is going to be shrugged off with the response “You just weren’t around at the right times.”    

But even with specifics, nailing a lie can be hard. You’ve heard that saying about how a lie can be half-way round the world before the truth has even got its boots on?  Well, here’s an illustration.  

Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her own apartment block. When the story about the attack came out in the press, it sent shock waves through New York, where the crime took place and beyond it across America even to the rest of the world. Because during the 35 minutes it took before Kitty Genovese died 38 people in the flats overlooking the murder did nothing.   Twice the murderer was disturbed by the lights coming on in some of the apartments but each time he returned and Kitty Genovese died. In spite of her calls for help, nobody lifted a finger to stop the murderer or even just call police. 

Here is a link to a reproduction of the original New York Times article.

The murder became a case-study for academia. It was extensively debated.  How could it happen?  The more people who witness an incident, sociologists theorised, the less likely any one of them is to take any action, because all will assume that one of the others is doing something.  It became a recognised sociological syndrome: “the diffusion  of responsibility” or “the bystander effect” even “the Genovese syndrome” (see the footnote to the link above).  

It was a lesson in human behaviour and how hard our hearts had become. 

Except. 

It didn’t happen like that.  The myth of the 38 who did nothing has been thoroughly debunked.  Kitty Genovese was attacked that night and received fatal injuries.  By the time help arrived, it was too late.   But that’s about all the report got right.  Whilst the behaviour of two of the witnesses was highly discreditable, for the most part, those who could help did their best and failed because of lack of sufficient information about what was going on, rather than lack of concern for a neighbour. The figure of “38” appears to have been plucked from the air.  

Let’s  test this Kitty Genovese report against WLC’s gospels argument:

  1. Temporal proximity: check.  In fact, the NYT article was far more proximate in time than the gospels to events they record – less than two weeks, which not even the most conservative evangelical would claim for the gospels.
  2. Geographical proximity: check.  Happened in NYC, written up in NYT.  Again, the gospels fall way short on this criterion. 

But more than that, the inaccuracies of the Kitty Genovese story were far more likely to come to the attention of those who knew the truth than any inaccuracies in the gospels were to those who might have corrected them. The people who had been there at the murder were members of a literate and technologically advanced society where reports like this were swiftly disseminated through the media.  And for the same reasons, they had more resources avaiable to them for rebutting those false reports.  

Furthermore, they were more motivated to rebut the story than the people who were witnesses to gospel events, because the story was greatly to the discredit of each one of them.

If you accept WLC’s reasoning you must conclude that it is simply impossible that the NYT article could be false because if it were, the witnesses would have disproved it.  But a story can take on a momentum of its own and truth can struggle to resist that momentum. Kitty Genovese’s is just one such story.

So the next time an apologist tells you that the gospels can’t be wrong because if they had been, too many people would have known the truth and put them right, tell them about Kitty Genovese.  

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9 thoughts on “Gainsaying the Gospels

  1. “for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.” (WLC)
    Apparently, most people did not, and still don’t believe the Gospel’s claims about the resurrection of Christ. So it is hard to see what point WLC is trying to make.
    Based on his reasoning, it could be said that there were so many people who were around at the time who did did not believe the resurrection story, that it was probably false.
    How does that work,Will?

  2. Frances – It’s nice to be commenting on your blog for a bit of a change (I’ve enjoyed reading some of your posts). I hope you’re going well?

    I read this and to be honest I’m not quite the fan of WLC that I once was, but I was struck by his first comment. I just thought I’d see what you made of this lecture: http://www.bethinking.org/is-the-bible-reliable/new-evidence-the-gospels-were-based-on-eyewitness-accounts

    I hope you’re going well and I hope that the meeting of skeptics and Christians went well?

    Talk soon (and I will get to responding to the comments – I do apologise for being such a slow commenter – it’s one of the side effects of having a busy job with a young family).

    Rob

    • “In this highly informative and amusing lecture, Dr Peter Williams presents new and old evidence that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, concentrating on details that would be practically impossible to get right otherwise.”
      So says the blurb on the page you linked to.
      So I listened to P.J.Williams’ lecture expecting to be informed and amused.
      Nuff said.
      I have noticed that otherwise highly intelligent, well-educated and well-read people can easily fall into the trap of their own popularity. Williams, alas, is no exception.
      Preaching to choir, he takes interesting little tidbits of information and calls them “New Evidence the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts”.
      As Frances will point out if she decided to give up 50 minutes of her life to listen to this lecture, nothing presented here can be accepted as evidence.
      Williams regularly shoots himself in the foot, such as when he quotes Herodias’ daughter, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
      Williams, as a skillful speaker just drops this in, almost in passing, when talking about the way personal names are used with an identifier – the Baptist. But he does this in a lecture purportedly presenting new evidence the gospels were based on eyewitness accounts.
      So who, precisely, witnessed Herodias’ daughter saying, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist”?
      “Objection – hearsay!”
      Maybe.
      This is a slightly entertaining lecture and most certainly not evidence of very much at all.
      The title could be “New Evidence that the Gospels were written by fairly well-educated people who knew how to put a narrative together, and maybe who had travelled, or knew people who had travelled.”
      End of.
      If you have any doubts about Williams’ “Aren’t I a clever boy?” attitude, just observe his behaviour when he makes the audience chuckle. “Oh gosh, I’m so funny and clever it embarrasses me.”

      That said, I’m glad that you are seeing the light about WLC. Good to se you back, robanddi.

      • Thanks for the link Richard.

        Of course, I can’t really comment on the majority of the video, which is about Reza Aslan’s book, as it haven’t read the book.

        But at the end, where he comes to the issue about the late authorship of the gospels, I thought he made much the same errors as Peter Williams did.

        I would absolutely not “assume” of any work purporting to be a historical account of the Kennedy assassination that the author “must have” spoken to eye-witnesses. I would expect the author to document his sources precisely and quote verbatim from any eye-witnesses whose evidence was particularly relevant.
        The only circumstances where I would “assume” the research without necessarily expecting it to be explicitly cited within the work would be in the genre of a historical novel. But I am only warranted in making that assumption because I know that documents from that period dealing with that event have been preserved and that anyone who is writing a historical novel is supposed to do some research.
        But here’s another assumption: I assume that Fr Robert Barron doesn’t invite us to regard the gospels as historical novels.

        He then argues some appallingly weak points. There’s a tradition that Mark accompanied Peter and there’s “no serious reason to doubt it.” Reversing the burden of proof much?

        The people who knew Jesus were “thick on the ground” amongst the early Christian communities. How does he know that (except by relying on the books of the NT, the reliability of which is precisely what he is supposed to be defending)? Question-begging.

        The alternative to accepting the historical reliability of documents written 40 years (and counting) after events is to believe that nothing happened for 40 years and then Mark made the whole thing up. Straw-manning. I don’t know anyone who actually believes that. Not even Richard Carrier argues that Mark was written ex nihilo.

        I was quite impressed by Fr Barron’s ability to fit so many bad arguments into such a short time.

        What do you think?

      • Context is everything.
        WLC and PJWilliams are heavily into evidence. In the case of WLC, the logical conclusion is that you’ve got to give your heart to Jesus immediately. Less so with Williams, because he was preaching to the choir.
        Don’t forget that Father Barron is a Catholic priest. During their long years in seminary, Catholic priests have studied in depth everything that is “wrong” with the Bible as a compilation of ancient documents. They are more than familiar with the now famous atheist objections. This is why you never hear them talking about rock-solid, life-changing, irrefutable evidence.

        I presume that you assume that Julius Caesar was actually involved in wars against Gaul? And that you make this assumption in spite of the fact that the earliest copies we have of his Gallic Wars dates from around a thousand years after the event.
        Maybe you also assume there was a philosopher called Plato and that he wrote Tetralogies “even though” the earliest copies we have are 1,200 years removed from the original. There are plenty of examples where we make assumptions without expecting “the author to document his sources precisely and quote verbatim from any eye-witnesses whose evidence was particularly relevant.”
        An assumption is not intended to be an irrefutable argument. If need be, it can be called into question in the light of new evidence.

        So I think you are being rather harsh when you put Fr Barron in the dock, and say that you were impressed by his “ability to fit so many bad arguments into such a short time.”

      • Sorry Richard, what’s time spent in the seminary got to do with anything? A bad argument is a bad argument. Are you suggesting that I treat his arguments differently because he’s a priest?

        I don’t “assume” that Julius Caesar was involved in wars against Gaul. Actually, I know so little about that period of history that I would have go and look it up before I could be sure of anything about Julius Caesar. (If I were asked in a pub quiz whether Julius Caesar were emperor during the Gallic wars I would base my answer largely on some small familiarity with the Asterix stories.)

        Having looked it up, I *would* assume that if there was scholarly consensus on the point then I could rely on it. But that would be an assumption grounded on my knowledge of how the academic world works, so a reasonable assumption. I do not start with unfounded assumptions and then wait until evidence comes along to call them into question.

        And what in essence was Fr Barron arguing? He was not arguing modestly that maybe, perhaps, on one view of things there was something to be said for the gospels being reliable eye-witness testimony. He was arguing that anyone who suggested that they weren’t drafted from the direct testimony of eye-witnesses was just being ridiculous. Lol (he literally does laugh out loud, unable to contain his hilarity when contemplating the absurdity of those who question his view) these people, what are they like? “What is this so much nonsense?” He then makes an abysmal analogy with the Kennedy assassination which is an epic fail – and remember, that example, rather than older historical events, was his choice, not mine.
        1. We would never simply assume, as he suggests, that the author had spoken to eye-witnesses. If the entire book gave no citations then it would go in the dustbin, where it would belong.
        2. We have independent evidence of the assassination of Kennedy (newspapers, cine footage, contemporaneous reports of the evidence of identifiable witnesses etc). If all we had were a series of books written 40 years and counting afterwards, we would rightly treat the whole story with some scepticism.

      • You’re quite right, of course. Although you should have replied:
        “Context is everything. Since you are posting on a counter-apologetics blog, don’t be surprised if i treat everything as apologetics, and then counter it.”
        😉

  3. Hi Rob! Welcome to my blog. I’m glad you dropped by.

    Young family + job: I remember it well. Doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else, I know.

    I watched the clip you sent me. It was interesting and I thought it comprised some good points, some bad points, some question-begging and some straw-manning.

    Good points:
    The use of names and plants common to the specific area and the Philip/Bethsaida link.

    Bad points:
    Ju Jitsu (I think it was Ju Jitsu – anyway, some martial art). We think this is reliable because we can use the principles it teaches and get results (fitness, able to ward off attack etc). It might might have changed so much over the centuries that if we were able travel back in time to its origins we wouldn’t recognise it. But as long as it works, that doesn’t matter a jot. Conversely, if the original teachings had been perfectly preserved but the thing didn’t work on any practical level, then we wouldn’t consider it “reliable” at all.
    Disambiguation. Possibly this was a better point than I thought, but just badly made. I couldn’t understand what his argument was. Even if you take the “eye-witness” argument at its absolute highest and say that Matthew and John are written by somebody who actually saw and heard the events, nobody suggests that the writer was taking contemporaneous notes. And most of us do not have perfect recall of the exact words spoken by others. We will always construct what we think they would have said, or “must” have said, having usually by the time we tell the story no independent recollection do what they actually did say. As Richard has commented, it’s about constructing a narrative and whether we do that from our own memories or from something else, we are using the same skills, which won’t include having the equivilent of a tape-recording in our heads, so I’m not sure what point Williams thought he was making.

    Question begging:
    Williams frequently referred to any agreement between the gospels as if each gospel writer was providing further independent evidence of what another had said. But there is no reason to think that the later gospel writers were not aware of what the earlier ones had said. In fact, the concensus is that Matthew used Mark, Luke used both and John used all three. But even if you don’t accept that concensus, if you want to argue that each gospel provides independent evidence of the others, then you do need to establish that each of the later writers had no knowledge of what the earlier ones had said and/or was not using any common source such as Q.

    Straw-manning:
    Williams repeatedly talked about the argument that the gospel writers got things wrong through incompetence was unsustainable. But I don’t think anybody suggests that the gospel writers were incompetent. That isn’t the argument at all. The argument is that the gospel writers were using some source material, possibly oral, possibly written (now lost), possibly a combination of both. They did not approach this material as a modern investigative journalist would. Their intention was didactic. Where what they had didn’t suit their didactic purposes, they were not averse to spinning it to make sure that it did. This was not because they were liars. It was because they wrote to inform their readers of a message which they believed to be true. Jesus “must have said” this, something “must have” happened in such a way, because that fits with the message the particular writer wanted to convey.
    A typical example is Matthew 21:5, which has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two donkeys (a mother and her foal). This was because Matthew wanted to show that it was a fulfillment of Zaccharia 9:9, which he understood to refer to two separate animals. It is now almost universally accepted that Zaccharia was employing a Hebrew literary device of emphasis by repetition. But for Matthew, the prophecy had to be fulfilled so Jesus rides into Jerusalem on straddling two beasts, an absurd and bathetic image, because it “had to” have happened that way. To my mind this passage alone is enough to destroy any argument that Matthew was an eye-witness or was scrupulously impartial in his assessment of evidence from other witnesses.

    PS
    The Believers & Skeptics meeting went really well. I’m looking forward to the next one. Well done Ed and all the organisers.

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